Travel Report: Firstsite Art Gallery, Colchester.
May 2019. I wouldn’t have put the English city of Colchester down as any kind of art Mecca. But then I’d never heard of Firstsite Art Gallery until I started researching the town’s key attractions. I do love a free art exhibition. Therefore, following the artistic void of Ruian, China, I was literally rubbing my hands at the prospect of a quiet hour or two lost in some thought-provoking art.
With a long history in Colchester, Firstsite’s current home dates back to 2011 when the organisation moved into this impressive golden crescent building at Lewis Gardens. It’s certainly a dramatic first impression as you approach the seemingly floating structure, built on a giant concrete raft above the ground. This was to protect the land beneath, which has been listed as an ancient monument containing archaeological artefacts from Colchester’s Roman era.
Firstsite Art Gallery’s mission is to “inspire people through innovative art and culture”. A visit here begins in this massive main hall, home to a stylish gift shop and We Walk the Line Café. I can personally vouch for the tea and cake. I’d recommend checking in with one of the receptionists before you walk around. They’re really friendly and happy to give you some info about the current exhibitions.
Firstsite Art Gallery.
My Firstsite stop (d’ya see what I did there?) that day was a poster exhibition called Problems with Modern Life by the British artist Magda Archer.
Startlingly colourful and brash, Problems with Modern Life juxtaposes nostalgic, enthusiastic imagery with cynical commentary on the world we live in today. Packed full of sceptical phrases and online theme mimicry, Archer created the installation from her own personal life experiences.
Moreover, there’s plenty of pop culture and vintage poster advertising thrown in. A lot of Archer’s posters hint at the perceived evils of mass consumerism, social media and the chaotic political times Britain finds itself in. I like the way that she only deals in broad statements, leaving the true meaning of her posters to the minds of her audience.
What To See & Do, Colchester.
The main exhibition that day was Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere: The Making of the Millicent Fawcett Statue for Parliament Square by Gillian Wearing. Try saying that after a few beers.
So who was Millicent Fawcett? Basically, she was a highly influential suffragist and campaigner for women’s equal rights. She led the world’s biggest suffrage organisation, a non-violent movement called the NUWSS, from 1890-1919. She was also a key player in gaining British women the right to vote.
The exhibition documents Gillian Wearing’s creation of the bronze statue, added to London’s Parliament Square in 2018. This was of particular interest to me, as I’d actually seen the statue in person just a week before coming to Colchester.
The exhibit features in-progress photographs, diary notes, research info, 3D prints and even a mock up of the statue itself. There are also a few original items from Fawcett’s life, along with a broader look at other influential suffragists of the time. Many of whom made their way onto the statue’s plinth.
The more you read, the more you realise what an exceptional achievement the statue is. In fact, Wearing is the first female sculptor to have her work featured on Parliament Square. Furthermore, Millicent Fawcett became the first woman to join Parliament Square’s fascinating collection of monuments.
Firstsite Art Gallery.
Firstsite gets a fair amount of school group traffic. I thought it was cool to see that teachers ask their kids to sit down and think about what they would campaign for in today’s muddled political climate. Oh boy, I’d love to see some of the ideas born at this table!
Firstsite Art Gallery is free to enter, though I think it’s only right to support them with a donation. Alternatively, maybe grab a bite in the cafe or pick up something from the gift shop. Normally, they open seven days a week from 10:00-17:00. Here’s their website.
To read about my visit to The Millicent Fawcett Statue, take a peek at my travel report from Parliament Square in London.
For more on my adventures in this pretty English town, check out my other travel reports from Colchester.
Or maybe search further afield with my articles from all around England.
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